How I conquered the Chicago Marathon

As a teen, Sadé Powell set a lofty bucket list goal to run a marathon. This year, at age 26, she accomplished the feat with help from a Nike Toronto training program. Here, she shares her journey to the finish line.
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In one of my diaries from high school there’s a page titled Bucket List. Most people have one. It might be in the form of a vision board or just a mental note to achieve something great next year, in the next 10 years or before they die. For me “run a marathon” is scribbled in as objective number 27. At the oh-so precious age of 15 I had no comprehension of what a marathon was. You run for a long time, it’s hard to do and it’s considered a huge accomplishment, I thought to myself. “Simple enough, maybe I’ll do it one day. Why not?” I then proceeded to assign myself another 31 missions due for completion before I eventually pass away in my sleep nestled in my solid gold mansion somewhere by tropical waters at age 102.

Up until recently, that diary had been collecting dust under piles of miscellaneous papers and documents I accumulated throughout college and in my early 20s. Nonetheless, I’d always been very experience driven. For my “champagne birthday” at 21 I went skydiving for the first time, prioritized travel and was privileged enough to visit 12 countries across the world and found fulfillment pursuing work in writing and illustration. When invitations to local events or unconventional opportunities arose, I almost always said “yes” with the belief that I had so much to gain from trying new things whether it’s within my bubble of interests or not. Running was surely not in my bubble of interests. To be quite honest I found it painfully boring. This presumption was challenged when I accepted an opportunity to tackle a 12-week training program with Nike to participate in my first full marathon in Chicago, Illinois this past October. Could I learn to, dare-I-say, like running? What did it really take to train for and finish a marathon for someone with little to no experience? 

Training: The New Workout Plan

Sadé at Fit Squad Training located in downtown Toronto.

I was feeling confident. I was determined to do something and there was no doubt in my mind that I could do it, as long as I put in the work. However, since entering “run a marathon” in my teenage diary almost a decade ago I hadn’t made even the slightest effort to gain any additional knowledge as to what that actually meant. A quick Google search uncovered information like “official distance of 42km (26.2 miles),” “average time of completion 4.5 hours,” and suggested 12-20 weeks of training. I was starting at 12 weeks, the bare minimum. Stroking my invisible beard, I tried to envision how this would all pan out and realized that I truly had no idea what I’d signed up for.

Participating in a training program designed by Nike running coach Inge Boerma, with the expertise and support of two other Nike coaches — endurance athlete Eric Bang and fitness trainer Jennifer Lau — this is how the next three months were broken down: self-guided runs would take place every other day, three to four times a week, with one long run each Saturday that would increase in distance as time progressed. Tuesday evenings were reserved for speed endurance training and high-intensity workouts with Eric and fellow writer/first-time marathoner Natasha Bruno. Fitted with the new Zoom Pegasus Turbo 35 runners and Nike sportswear I was already feeling like an award-winning athlete who had run a thousand marathons in her time. At the very least, I looked like one.

One of the first things I was told about this journey is that it would be just as much a mental battle as it would be a physical challenge.

During short July runs I maneuvered through Toronto’s downtown core — where I recently moved from North York — dodging pedestrians, admiring graffiti and cursing construction. I tracked my workouts using the Nike Run Club app on my Apple watch, which documented my runs by distance, time and average pace. They were typically anywhere between 5 to 10km long. On average I would finish 7km in under an hour. All my run days were entered into my schedule in advance. I started utilizing my calendar more effectively for upcoming events, work and social activities as these all had to be scheduled around my training.

The Injury: Welcome to Heartbreak

One of the first things I was told about this journey is that it would be just as much a mental battle as it would be a physical challenge. With this in mind I was able to push through every drop of sweat, sore muscle and a strained hamstring. That’s right — I injured a muscle (that I learned is actually made up of and affects three other muscles) critical for running. This happened halfway through the program. I was down for the count and my training was put on hold. At first, I thought, “This will pass soon enough,” and “I’m young my body will recover quickly. This will take no longer than a week, two at most.” In reality the injury never completely healed throughout the duration of the training.

So, what did I do? I bought ice packs, a hot pad, anti-inflammatory pills, religiously foam-rolled the muscle, rested and stretched. Coach Inge suggested elliptical cross training to supplement the long runs. Therefore, as an alternative, each week I’d spend up to four hours at the gym in one spot, repeating that same motion over and over as my timer ticked forward for what seemed like an eternity. Without my phone propped up on the machine’s dashboard streaming episodes of Dragon Ball Super and British TV series Top Boy, I surely would have lost my mind.

Every now and again doubt reared its ugly head and my morale would falter. “What if I can’t run on race day?”

Eight weeks in I was feeling anxious. I tried to remain positive as much as possible and told myself I’d heal up before Chicago. However, every now and again doubt reared its ugly head and my morale would falter. “What if I can’t run on race day?” “What if I let everyone down?” It felt oppressive at times, thinking that I had failed before I’d even begun. I started to focus on solutions rather than self-pity. My whole program got a facelift and after two weeks of rest with elliptical training I was back at the track on Tuesdays with Coach Eric and fellow trainee Natasha doing modified runs. A month before marathon day a new dynamic of training was mixed into my schedule: functional strength building. At 5:30 a.m. each Monday I bunny-tied my rose gold Nike In-Season Tr 8 training shoes and made my way over to Fit Squad Training to work with the second Nike coach Jennifer. We focused on unilateral strength, core and mobility.

The last few weeks were an oscillation of strength and recovery. I began physiotherapy and took on meditation/visualization classes to prepare myself mentally and physically. I was busy, but each element was crucial in order to meet my goal, which at this point, was to get at least as far as 20k.

Final Stretch: Say You Will

The vibrant colourway of the Nike Air Max 270 React paired with this multi-coloured Nike Swoosh sports bra.

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon was five days away and on my last Tuesday at the track Coach Inge ran by my side and laid out a strategy that would get me to the finish line. I would not be running for more than 10 minutes, rather I would insert intervals of walking for a maximum of one to two minutes in order to avoid further injury to my right hamstring. She taught me how to drink water out of paper cups while running, suggested breakfast ideas and told me if I felt a blister brewing to just keep running. Our group engaged in goodbye hugs, laughs and marveled at how fast the three months had gone by. The hard work was over and all I could do now was rest.

I dreamt of race day every night that week. I had visions of myself collapsing on the floor in pain or of waking up on Sunday only to find that I had slept through the entire event. The evening before my flight to Chicago I stopped into my old job at a downtown shoe store to visit some friends. I voiced my reservations about running injured and the possibility of being unable to finish the run despite all the work I’d done up until then. I was reminded of something that had completely escaped me: Just have fun.

What a revelation!

Looking back on that conversation with my friend Anthony and hearing those three words out loud, it really struck me how stressed I’d been worrying about whether I could finish the marathon, about the whole ordeal really. I had forgotten about having fun and enjoying the adventure.

I’d been worrying about whether I could finish the marathon, about the whole ordeal really. I had forgotten about having fun and enjoying the adventure.

I was especially inspired during a dinner held by Nike in Chicago on the Friday before the marathon. Marko Cheseto, Kenyan All-American athlete in track and field and cross-country running, came to speak to all the invitees who would be running in the Chicago Marathon. He is a double-amputee and spoke about his unique experience as a runner. One thing he said that stood out to me was the following:

“What I learned in life is the moment you tell yourself ‘this is possible’, it will be.”

He continued to explain the power of intention and that those who say they can’t do something are right and those who say they can are also right. With this newly developed understanding that aiming for 20k rather than the full marathon distance was a limit I placed on myself, I regrouped. I then consciously made the decision that I would run on Sunday and I would finish.

The Chicago Marathon: Can’t Tell Me Nothing

Nike sportswear taken from track to concrete. Sadé pairs the Nike Windrunner with the JDI medium-support sports bra for a casual fit.

Like we always do at this time, I go for mine, I got to shine…

Kanye’s “Goodlife” blasts under my pillow at 4:55 a.m. Sunday morning in Chicago. I lazily raise a single hand “up to the sky” as the other fumbles to hit “stop.” My marathon fit is laid out neatly on the desk of my hotel room. Black Nike Dri-FIT tights and loose long sleeve, a purple runner’s tank and my bib safely pinned on the belly just below my name, which is embroidered in black letters across the chest. On either side of the silhouette are my kicks of choice: the new Nike Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2s in orange, which match perfectly with my hair colour at the time. In place of nerves was unwavering resolve. I was ready to kill it.

My start time was 7:30 a.m. I was among the first wave of participants to hit the ground running. It was fairly chilly, and I remember wishing I’d worn gloves. In the moment prior to take off I was surrounded by bodies jogging in place, stretching out limbs and conversing in French, Spanish and other languages I didn’t recognize. Over 40,000 people from around the world made it out that day to do something great. Some would be adding the Chicago Marathon to a growing list of completed marathons, others had never even run 5k a year before, but what we all had in common was the hard work that was now behind us and the lengthy road ahead.

I pushed forward and then, finally, my feet crossed the final threshold … For a brief second nothing hurt anymore.

We were off. Executing the run method employed to me by Coach Inge I absorbed the cheers and chants of the crowd for fuel while they enthusiastically mispronounced my name. The first 10k felt standard. I’d done that distance several times before in training and the second 10k whizzed by. Somewhere after 26k my leg muscles began to feel like bags of sand, and I popped my earphones in for some rhythmic inspiration. It was during the last 15km that my body told me to stop. This is where my strategy pretty much went out the window and I was just running for as long as I could before walking or pausing briefly to stretch the tightness in my muscles. I could feel the pulsing presence of blisters forming on my left foot and I was struggling to intake the cold air that stung my throat and lungs. Despite my external grief I was elated to be there, pounding the streets on the most eccentric tour of Chicago I could ask for. The sun was out, and I thought of all the support I’d received from friends, family, strangers, the Nike team and Urbanology.

Sadé crossing the finish line of the Chicago Marathon.

Slowly, I was closing the gap between the finish line and myself, summoning enough energy for a steady jog with 400m remaining. That was one lap around the track back home. I pushed forward and then, finally, my feet crossed the final threshold. I tilted my head toward the clouds, eyes closed with my hands joined together on the top of my sweaty forehead. For a brief second nothing hurt anymore. I imagined this moment many times in the last few months and as the days got closer, I began to see myself crossing the finish so overwhelmed with emotion that I’d fall to my knees and cry. There were no tears though. Instead, I smiled sweetly to myself. Because though there were setbacks, both physical and emotional, this was always how the chapter was going to end. I said it from the very first day and that intention put wings on my feet and carried me across the finish.

Portrait photos © May Truong

Final photo from Chicago Marathon courtesy of Nike

Editor’s note: Nike Toronto covered the travel costs associated with this trip to the Chicago Marathon and supplied gear for the training and marathon. Nike did not have editorial say in this content.

Sadé Powell is a freelance writer and illustrator based in Toronto, Ontario. With six years of experience in the journalism field under her belt, she has had the freedom to dabble in a range of topics including music, technology, culture, fashion, local and international daily news.

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